Will this be Tamil Nadu’s year of the Ranji Trophy? We’ll know over the next few weeks. But there is a sense of joy for the die-hard TN cricket follower in ruminating on the possibility after the side’s morale-boosting win in just two days over a star-studded Karnataka in the quarter-finals in Vizag.
Honestly, no one gave TN much of a chance in the five-day knockout game. Karnataka have traditionally got the better of TN, and their side included Karun Nair and KL Rahul, who scored a triple ton and 199 respectively in the final England Test, and Manish Pandey who was also in the Test squad.
Not to forget, Nair had scored a triple ton against Tamil Nadu in the Ranji final in Mumbai two years ago, and the Test trio turned up straight for the Ranji clash that began within three days of the conclusion of the Chennai Test.
There had been some confusion over their availability for the Ranji clash, with the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association announcing in the middle of the Chennai Test that the two would be playing.
Although Ashwin and Vijay were not a part of the side’s impressive domestic run this season owing to their national commitments, TN were hoping that the duo would play a major part of the knockouts, with India’s next international assignment, the limited-overs series against England, starting on Jan 15 and the Ranji final concluding a day earlier on Jan 14.
Without the two, the signs were ominous for TN ahead of the Cauvery Derby.
Neutral hosts Andhra Cricket Association provided a pitch that reportedly had green grass and retained moisture, and TN’s three-man seam attack, with a cumulative first-class experience of 35 matches, rolled Karnataka over twice inside 40 overs after Abhinav Mukund had opted to bowl first.
The toss proved crucial, but you still got to get 20 wickets to win. Karnataka’s four seamers have all donned India colours, but it was the TN seam attack of Aswin Crist, T Natarajan and K Vignesh that nailed it.Call it the rub of the green if you like.
And so, will this be Tamil Nadu’s year of the Ranji Trophy?For a traditionally strong domestic outfit that have made it to the Ranji final on 12 occasions, Tamil Nadu have won the title only twice – in 1954-55 and 1987-88.Dinesh Karthik, who just played his 100th Ranji game, is possibly the only player in the current side who was born before the State’s last Ranji Trophy triumph. That effectively means that three generations of TN cricketers have coveted that elusive title and retired empty-handed.
Add to that the frustration of losing the final on six occasions since their last triumph –– 91-92 to Delhi, 95-96 to Karnataka, 2002-03 & 2003-04 to Mumbai, 2011-12 to Rajasthan and 2014-15 to Karnataka. The current side’s bowling coach L Balaji played in the last four finals.
It’s only understandable at this time for former players and avid followers of TN to talk about the side that they think should have won the Ranji Trophy but failed to at the finish. Several that I know feel that the 1991-92 team was the best of their times. It certainly appeared so. Delhi won on first-innings score on that occasion.
My personal favourite is the 1995-96 outfit. What a ride that was! Defeating Mumbai outright for the first time in the tournament’s history, before going down to a star-studded Karnataka at Chepauk. Karnataka out-batted TN in that final.
Come to think of it, TN have been batted out of the contest in four of their last six final appearances, and that’s been a cause for concern going into the knockouts this season.
However, there is a sense of professionalism that Maharashtra’s Hrishikesh Kanitkar has brought to the side as coach this year, and paired with former state skipper-turned-bowling coach Balaji, there appears to be a burning desire for Trophy success in the team.
And so, that brings us back to the question: will this be Tamil Nadu’s year of the Ranji Trophy?
Their semi-final is at a neutral venue (Rajkot) from Jan 1, opponents yet to be decided. But this side appears up to it, when push comes to shove. That’s the belief we are riding on.
As someone who grew up playing/watching the game in Tamil Nadu, and later chronicling their fortunes, one can't help but dream that dream along with the side.